The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

October 29, 2013

Mother, two daughters fight cancer in a year

Randy Griffith

NEW FLORENCE — Edi Nesmith, 52, was numbed by the news in November that she had stage 3 ovarian cancer, but she was not surprised.

“It never was a question of ‘if,’ ” she said at her New Florence home. “It was only a question of ‘when.’

“When you have a mother who’s had breast cancer twice, and you have a sister who’s had breast cancer twice, you just expect it.”

Her grandmother and uncle also had breast cancer.

Nesmith may not have expected that her mother, Teresa Hollen, 82, of New Florence, and her sister Susie Erlandson, 55, of Jefferson County, would each have new cancer diagnosed within the coming months.

“Our family has been through so much in a year,” said Nesmith’s third sister, Sonya Adams, 48, of New Florence.

“2013: Nothing worse,” Hollen said.

The triple whammy has brought the family closer together and inspired everyone to re-examine their priorities, Adams said.

“It’s been a hell of a ride,” Adams said. “It makes you realize what’s important in life. It’s your family. It’s not material things.”

Erlandson completed genetic testing during her latest bout with breast cancer and was found to have a BRCA gene mutation.

The inherited gene mutations are responsible for about 5 percent of breast cancers and about 10 to 15 percent of ovarian cancers, Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center says.

Nesmith and Adams are scheduled to have their genetic testing done in January. Both plan to follow up a positive BRCA test with a prophylactic double mastectomy, and Adams will have a hysterectomy. Nesmith had a hysterectomy following her diagnosis in November.

Although doctors say the extreme procedures provide the best protection against future cancer, 82-year-old Hollen is not convinced. She has refused genetic testing, much as she refused therapy following the mastectomy for her first breast cancer in 1986.

“I said no chemo and no radiation,” Hollen said. “God will take care of me.”

Her second bout with breast cancer in 2000 included chemotherapy after a lumpectomy, and she is completing another chemotherapy regimen after her May diagnosis with ovarian cancer.

But her faith remains strong, and Hollen counts her fellow parishioners at Holy Family Catholic Church in Seward as allies in her

fight for survival.

“I want to thank all my friends for taking time to bring me Communion and for sending cards,” Hollen said. “It means a lot to me. And thank God for all the good people who did pray for me.”

The Rev. Robert Washko, Holy Family’s pastor, has been supportive as well.

“That is what kept her going,” Nesmith said.

Lessons in faith from her mother helped Nesmith through the ordeal, she added.

“I was not angry at anybody,” Nesmith said. “This is life. You take it one day at a time. Sometimes things play out the way they are supposed to play out.”

Sharing their cancer battle as a family has made her latest round of treatments bearable, Erlandson said. She and Nesmith decided to take control of their chemotherapy side effects by having their heads shaved.

“Going through it together, it distracted us enough that we didn’t have any time for self-pity,” Erlandson said. “We were so concerned about each other.”

Randy Griffith covers health care for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at